David R. Henderson  

Tom Sargent on How the Vietnam War Made Him Skeptical of Government

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One of the things I find most fascinating is how various people came to their political views. Most people are not particular conscious of how, but some people are. I remember interviewing James Buchanan in 1997 and asking him if his experiences as a young Lieutenant in the large U.S. Navy bureaucracy during World War II--he worked in Hawaii under Admiral Nimitz--had made him start to think about public choice. His one-word answer: No.

Thomas Sargent, by contrast, became, in his words, "more conservative," because of the Vietnam war. Here's an excerpt from a July 1982 interview with Arjo Klamer:

Klamer: Did you go to Vietnam?
Sargent: I went through ROTC, was commissioned, and then worked in the systems analysis office of the Pentagon. It changed me in some ways, made me more conservative. I came to understand more clearly the limitations of government actions. It was a learning experience. My conclusions came from seeing the whole decision-making process by which the US got into the war: how we evaluated the situation, how we processed the data from the war, how we understood our options, what we saw as the resources and costs in Southeast Asia, and what we thought was the likely outcome. We didn't do a very good job. There was an incredible volume of inefficient and bad decisions, which one must take into account when devising institutions for making policy.

This is from Arjo Klamer, Conversations with Economists, 1983. This book, incidentally, is the first book I ever reviewed for Fortune.

One of the points I made in my talk at Berkeley yesterday is that the same limitations that libertarian and conservative economists point out with government intervention in the domestic economy apply in spades to government intervention in other people's countries.


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Shane writes:

Scepticism towards war seems a trait both of much of the left and of sections of the right (libertarian, perhaps paleoconservative also). I know plenty of left-wingers who are noisily anti-war and highly criticial of their governments, but don't tie this into a wider scepticism towards government and its potential. So it's interesting to see how people head down different political paths when confronted with undesired war.

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